Transportation Industry News

Decision time: software-as-a-Service (SaaS) or custom-built software systems? Part 1

1. Cost

Pay close attention to upfront and ongoing costs for each option, typically, custom solutions will have deceptively low ongoing costs with huge upfront costs that hide the inevitable, massive rebuild cost when the technology becomes obsolete (think of a new car that devalues as soon as it leaves the lot). This is because the low ongoing cost will only cover the basics to maintain the system, not keep it up-to-date with new product features and technology updates. Enter SaaS, typically lower upfront costs but higher ongoing costs for precisely the reason above – constant updates so large fees due to obsolescence never occur and the system continuously improves.

2. Speed

Custom solutions are exactly that, custom – meaning it takes additional time to gather requirements and build from scratch. SaaS solutions typically have out-of-the-box platforms that can be spun-up very quickly while allowing for configurations that would adapt the platform to the client’s specific needs. Within agencies today, as various point solutions are adopted for different functional needs – the idea of interoperable data becomes even more important. 

3. Flexibility

Custom solutions due to initial customization and pricing structure are generally set in stone after they are launched barring minor changes here and there, material modifications are both difficult and costly, SaaS solutions on the other hand, are highly adaptable and generally straightforward to modify by nature of the continuous product and technology updates.  

While it may seem obvious that we feel this way, think on these three points and check out our SaaS solution: ProjectTracker in the meantime if you like, no pressure! Stay tuned for part 2.

Achieving Successful System Integrations on Planning Software

In today’s complex organizations, no single job or the system used to support a job can afford to be a lone island.  

That’s why any software must make sense within the broader technology ecosystem it needs to fit within for its end user.

Take transportation planning or capital programming for example – planners use cloud-based solutions like ProjectTracker to streamline their main workflow of planning and programming capital projects. 

At the same time, planners may also need to integrate programming data with financial system data for budgeting, push or pull FMIS obligation data from FHWA for federal funding updates, pull contract award and letting data from AASHTOWARE for visibility on project delivery status – among other examples of system integration needs for programming.

Here are some some insights we’ve learned from years of work with government agencies on what to consider when choosing a software that needs to integrate with other systems:

1. Identify software with a track record of existing functional connection to your preferred system as much as possible

Often teams with no prior experience on a particular system will underestimate the effort and time it takes to develop a robust integration for the very first time. 

This is an aspect of custom development that always ends up taking longer and more costly than expected. This is especially true when integrating with systems that do not have mature APIs. At one end of the spectrum, a system with well-documented API presents the easiest point of integration. As an example, If ESRI has a well documented API, it’s relatively straightforward for any reputable software company to establish a simple integration. 

However, many legacy or custom built systems do not have APIs – especially in the government space. FHWA’s FMIS is an example. The level of effort to unpack the FMIS data, transform and perform operations on it, build the data pipe in a first integration attempt can be magnitudes of degrees higher than anything else and possibly take years. 

As much as possible – find solutions that have a functional integration already with the system you need. 

2. Develop a robust, centralized data warehouse in the agency

Within agencies today, as various point solutions are adopted for different functional needs – the idea of interoperable data becomes even more important. 

It’s valuable to not only be able to import data from other systems – it also becomes critical to easily export data out of each system so data can be centralized and normalized. 

Enter the centralized data warehouse. 

We’ve seen agencies successfully invest the staff resources in developing and maintaining a comprehensive, centralized data warehouse. 

Such a warehouse pipes in data from all software at the agency, and allows designated technical staff to create complex and custom reports, visualizations and ad-hoc or ongoing queries to extract useful insights from all of the data captured across the whole organization. 

This gives agencies unprecedented transparency and visibility to all of the data generated across all its systems, and augments the reporting capabilities that exist across individual software platforms. 

Centralized data warehouse puts the control back in the hands of the agency of its entire data across the whole work lifecycle of its organization. 

In your procurement process, look for software with an API or direct database connection to easily export data out of the platform for integration with an internal data warehouse. 

3. Consider choosing the path of direct database connection for data warehouse integration

When exploring a software’s capability to work with an internal data warehouse, one option (if available) that can save agencies much time and effort is to choose a live, direct database connection. 

This connection capability allows the client agency to directly tap into another software’s database without having to do essentially any development work. 

This approach works especially well for agencies using advanced BI tools like Tableau or Power BI, and wish to add another data source from a software in a manner requiring zero work outside of credentials to establish the connection for the first time. 

Once established, the live direct database connection allows your BI tool to “see” instant changes to the dataset in the connected system – and utilize those updates right away in your reporting. 

These days, government departments are increasingly seeing the benefit of choosing the best-in-class point solution for specific needs, vs. using an all-encompassing heavy software that does everything but meeting various specific needs only half-way. The fact that many modern software has configuration capabilities to display different types and layouts of data from other systems makes the choice even more compelling. 

We hope the above suggestions can help any transportation programmer or planner wrestling with how to ensure a technology transformation will achieve successful integrations with other internal tools.

Staying in the Black

Kristen Z, Transportation Planner

[<5 Minute Read]

Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) have been in business close to 40 years now. During this time, they have grown or shrunk depending on the needs and interests of the region. MPOs and other regional planning organizations like Council of Governments and Regional Councils assist with a broad array of community needs, including everything from transportation infrastructure planning to helping fund water systems to – in some regions – even providing critical social service programs. 

These organizations have not only diversified their programming, they have also diversified their funding sources for operations and for funding infrastructure and non-infrastructure programs and plans. MPOs that serve regions larger than 200,000 people award federal transportation funding, and most organizations, regardless of size, are looking at grants and other supplemental funding opportunities. These opportunities stretch the formula federal, state, and local government dollars that are flowing into MPOs, and the competitive nature of these opportunities helps regions refine their strategic priorities. 

(Keeping your transportation infrastructure priorities front and center is important for funding conversations. EcoInteractive’s Project Tracker comes standard with a public facing website so the public, decision-makers, and grant reviewers can always access the region’s MTP and TIP projects.)

The federal government is currently evaluating legislation to replace the expired FAST Act; regardless of the decisions made in Washington, D.C., regional planning organizations have several funding opportunities and mechanisms at their disposal today.

We asked Greg Youell, Executive Director @ the Omaha-Council Bluffs Metropolitan Area Planning Agency (MAPA) to share some of the tools he’s used to diversify his agency’s funding. (Keep in mind, he’s worked with his DOT and FHWA Division Office to ensure these tools are appropriate for his agency.)

Greg Youell
Executive Director @ MAPA

‘Ensuring we remain healthy fiscally and positioned to deliver quality services is a constant focus. Using a number of tools over the past decade, MAPA has diversified our funding and grown our capacity as an agency. Here are a few options that have worked for our transportation program:

Advance Construction (AC) – Using this tool in coordination with your State DOT can make sure that your region doesn’t lose a penny. Essentially, local governments build a transportation project on their own dime, while following the Federal-Aid process. They then become eligible for reimbursement at a future date, when you convert the federal funds. Making sure that each year’s federal dollars get allocated as soon as possible prevents the risk of losing them and positions you to take advantage of other funding opportunities that may come along.

August Redistribution – Hundreds of millions of dollars get redistributed each year toward the end of the fiscal year to State DOTs. If your region has a project that is approved and ready to go, talk to your DOT about including it in the August Redistribution. It’s an excellent way to get funds spent quickly and can offer some additional flexibility to the program.

Swap Funding – Like several states, the State of Iowa provides our MPO with state funds to local governments in exchange for federal STBG dollars, which they utilize on a state project in our region selected mutually. Cities and counties can often deliver projects in a quicker and more inexpensive manner than is possible when utilizing the Federal-aid process, so the state dollars are welcome.

In-kind Match – Look for planning efforts underway by local or state partners that are funded without federal funds. This could include anything from traffic counting to aerial imagery. If the activity supports the regional planning process, then it is eligible to propose in your UPWP as in-kind match, saving you precious local dollars.

TIP Fee No this doesn’t mean putting out a jar at your receptionist desk! Our region needed to increase revenues urgently, and adopted this funding mechanism as a preferred alternative to increasing local dues. Interestingly, the idea was recommended during our Certification Review and had been utilized in a neighboring state. While there’s a lot to it, the basic idea is that local Federal-aid projects require that a 1% fee go to the MPO (e.g., $10,000 on a $1 million project). It has provided a great source of stability to our organization.’

Loved this post and want to learn more? Check out what we’ve done for some of our customers and see how transformative a modern database can be when it comes to managing transportation data!

When is a Local Transportation Priority a Regional Transportation Priority?

Kristen Z, Transportation Planner

[<5 Minute Read]

At its heart, transportation planning is assessing needs and prioritizing responses to those needs. Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) grapple with defining “regional significance” to determine both needs and transportation infrastructure projects to respond to those needs. The term, “regional significance”, is specifically called out in federal legislation governing MPOs; it sets the “floor” for defining which roadway facilities must be included in metropolitan transportation planning. However, MPOs have tremendous discretion in defining “the ceiling” to the term. Some MPOs have adopted official definitions to define specifically what scale or type of project. These definitions often include functional classification criteria or cost criteria, and can include different definitions of “regional significance” for the different components of the system: highways, local streets, bicycle or pedestrian facilities, and the transit system.

If your transportation planning organization is considering defining “regional significance” for your region, here are some suggestions for you to consider:

  • Common transportation issues: oftentimes, member communities share the same common transportation problems or desires, e.g.,
    • Upgrading arterial streets to better serve developing or re-developing areas. This often occurs in newly developed suburban areas, where roads that were designed and built to rural standards need upgrades to meet urban arterial standards. It can also occur in re-developing areas, where complete streets were not in demand when the arterial or collector street was originally put in, but are in demand now.
    • Investments in downtown, large or small. Downtowns serve as the geographic, economic (especially when analyzed on an area basis), and cultural hearts of communities. Downtowns are almost always the earliest developments in a city’s history i.e., are always in high need of infrastructure upgrades.
  • Systems with the highest volumes of use: it is often reasoned that because the highway network serves the largest volumes of traffic, it should be the priority for investment. With the exception of privately operated toll highways, these systems are owned and operated by State Departments of Transportation (DOT) and are composed of the interstate system and state highway system. When highway projects rise to the top, it is an opportunity to partner with the State DOT to assess how highway projects that are important to the region align with the State’s priorities.
  • Election results for transportation initiatives: perhaps voters have approved a transportation sales tax that has already defined the region’s priorities through a vote. These are often focused on expansion of one large project, for example – expanding the region’s transit system, or are multi-modal and multi-jurisdictional in nature. Either way, the voters have spoken and the projects on these initiatives can be considered high priorities for the region!

How does your planning organization help local communities determine which projects on the local system rise to priorities at the regional scale?

We asked, Mr. Viplava Putta, Director of Transportation Planning and Programs @ the Indian Nation Council of Governments (INCOG) in Tulsa, Oklahoma:

Mr. Viplav Putta,
Director of Transportation Planning and Programs @ Indian Nation Council of Governments (INCOG) in Tulsa, Oklahoma

“Most communities are continuously evolving as they grow on a path that is unique to them. Each community has a list of roadway and active transportation projects that are part and parcel of a consensus, the Long-Range Regional Transportation Plan (LRTP) or Metropolitan Transportation Plan (MTP). Those projects are revised every five years based on the LRTP / MTP update on cycle. It is also assumed that every project listed in the LRTP / MTP is of ‘regional significance’.

The Metropolitan Planning Organization can help each community with prioritization of projects that are included in the plan utilizing several tools in the toolbox:

1. One such readily measurable tool that is tied to the goals of every agency – local, state, and federal levels – is Traffic Safety. It can be incorporated into prioritizing any local project that seeks federal funding from any source of funds, it can clearly orient the transportation priorities that are tied to short-term improvements.

2. The second measure that is helpful for prioritizing any project, especially relevant to any growing area, is a quantified level of congestion for a segment or an intersection.

3. Last but not least is the project readiness that will help determine priority for the community based on what has been accomplished in terms of pre-construction activities.

This criteria will narrow a potentially infinite project list for any community to more manageable top priorities. Stakeholders such as elected officials, community administration, and public involvement will add significant value in determining that final selection before a project is advanced to seek funding from an agency, such as from the Metropolitan Planning Organization or the State”

Whatever your organization determines as its priority transportation investments, it is important to keep track of their status as they move through the the Metropolitan Transportation Plan (MTP) and Transportation Improvement Program (TIP) processes.

Transportation Planning Software
Check out EcoInteractive’s STIP / TIP / MTP SaaS solutions to effortlessly streamline these plans!

Loved this post and want to learn more? Check out what we’ve done for some of our customers and see how transformative a modern database can be when it comes to managing transportation data!

Transportation Data: Who Knew Goldilocks was so Elusive?

Kristen Z, Transportation Planner

[<10 Minute Read]

Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) use all kinds of data to support their metropolitan transportation planning processes. There’s count data, survey data, public input data, GIS data, condition and performance data, travel demand data, project data, network data, land use data, and it seems like new and improved datasets and analyses are introduced almost daily. It can feel like the “Three Bears” fairy tale, where Goldilocks and “just right” data are not quite within reach. Our aim for this blog post is to share reasons and considerations when evaluating data specifically for MPO purposes.

Why do MPOs expend resources to collect, manage, analyze, and report on data?

  • It’s Required: the Federal Government requires MPOs to collect, calculate, and report on their progress in meeting performance targets for the regional transportation system. These include safety, condition, and performance measures.
  • It’s Requested: MPO staff may receive requests from their Committee or Board members for specific datasets. For example, public input summary data and project information are common requests.

(EcoInteractive’s ProjectTracker service displays MTP and TIP project-level data. Funding sources and amounts, scope, schedule, and other basic info are displayed in an easy-to-read table along with a mapping interface to show the project location. Check out the new-and-improved software here.)

  • It’s an Emerging Issue: MPO priorities change over time, and as they change, the data collection focus changes with it. For example, interest in active transportation modes has increased over the last several years, and many MPOs are now collecting data on the volumes and location of bicyclists and pedestrians.
  • It Supports Decision-Making: MPOs are in the business of navigating what oftentimes appear as conflicting interests – urban / suburban, cars / bikes, state system / local system. Using data-driven planning helps to justify planning and funding decisions. For example, “Preservation of the System” is a common goal, and using condition and capacity data for the regional road system is very helpful in deciding which intersections / corridors / interchanges are in the highest need of replacement and / or rehabilitation. There is never enough funding to fund all of the candidate projects, and using data in a meaningful way goes a long way to helping MPOs invest strategically in their transportation system.
  • It Offers New Insights: Transportation planning is constantly innovating where new datasets, analyses, and reporting are available. There have been some innovative data projects released recently that offer new insights into commonly held beliefs about travel patterns, community vibrancy, and economic development. These can help MPOs ask new questions and evaluate how the transportation system contributes to the overall look and feel of a community.

It’s important to understand the considerations for collecting, analyzing, compiling, and reporting on data. We asked two transportation planners that specialize in transportation data to weigh in:

“What’s important to you when evaluating data considered for use in MPO transportation planning?”

Chris Upchurch, MPO Transportation Planner @ Mid-America Regional Council (MARC)When evaluating data for use in transportation planning at an MPO, it’s important to look beyond the usual issues like accuracy, cost, and timeliness that would apply in any field. Two fundamental questions will tell you a lot about how useful the data is going to be:

1. Can the data tell me something about the region’s goals?

The goals laid out in the long-range Metropolitan Transportation Plan describe where we want to take our transportation system. They’re an expression of the obstacles we face and the shortcomings of the existing system. Data that can inform us about our progress towards these goals or help decide what investments will make progress towards them is vital for decision-making in an MPO.

2. Can I use this data to tell an understandable story to various audiences?

An MPO’s planning products shouldn’t just be for transportation planners. We need to communicate the data we use and the conclusions we draw to elected officials, stakeholders, and members of the public.

Jim Hubbell, AICP, Solution Engineering Manager @ StreetLight DataMPOs are somewhat unique in that they are both voracious consumers and producers of data. MPO planners, like others, need massive amounts of data to support their planning work today and in the future. At the same time, MPOs typically act as repositories for regional data, providing value to the local jurisdictions that they serve. This means MPO planners not only have to think about how data can be used in their day-to-day work, but also about how it can be stored, managed, and maintained over time in a way that generates value for the entire region.

With these goals in mind, here are 5 critical questions to consider when evaluating data for use in MPO transportation planning:

1. Will it be used to meaningfully inform a planning decision?

The answer to this question should be a no-brainer, and always “yes” of course. However, MPO planners are constantly balancing the need to meet their core planning requirements with short-term issues that inevitably crop up and demand immediate attention. With so many new types of data becoming available, it’s easy to get distracted with something that’s nice-to-have, or might create a snazzy graphic. However, in a world where time and resources are limited, we should prioritize collecting and using data that will lead to better outcomes.

(Pro-Tip: Look for data sources that apply broadly to your core work AND random issues that arise.)

2. Is the data current?

We all know the phrase “the only thing constant in life is change” or some variation on that idea. Obviously the world is always changing, but it certainly seems like the pace of that change is also increasing. To keep up with this change, planners need current data. MPO planners are often expected to answer questions about today with data that’s 1, 5, and even 10+ years old. Historical data is important (more on trends below), but we need to be seeking out and demanding more current and frequently updated data!

3. Is the data source stable, and will it be around in the future?

Planners need to monitor trends, which means longitudinal data is needed. We can’t forecast or project into the future without observing data and performance measures over time. MPOs and their planning partners (local governments, State Departments of Transportation, U.S. Department of Transportation, etc.) typically have established data collection programs that collect and report key transportation data at regular intervals in a consistent format. These are relatively stable, although they are tied to budgets that can be unpredictable. A lot of new data sources are emerging however, that come from a variety of outside sources. Before investing precious resources in a new data source, it’s important to consider whether or not that data will be around for the next update to your plan or performance measures report.

4. How much is known or shared about the data itself?

Metadata (or data about the data) is often overlooked or given minimal attention – but it is just as important as the data itself! When evaluating a data source, don’t forget to dig into the details. Yes, it’s extra work, but it’s incumbent upon planners to access, read, and understand as much documentation about data as possible.

  • Where does it come from?
  • What sort of quality control measures are applied?
  • What assumptions are used or applied?
  • What methods are used to derive or calculate the data?
  • What are the sources of error?
  • Are there any inherent biases?

These are just a few of the questions that you should be asking. Knowing the answers will help you defend any conclusions or recommendations based on the data, and make you look like a rockstar when someone tries to stump you at the next policy board meeting!

5. Has the data been objectively verified or validated?

This question probably applies more to many of the new and emerging data sources, particularly data or metrics based in whole or in part on Big Data / Passive Data (used interchangeably) or otherwise remotely sensed data.

A significant amount of data processing is needed to convert Big Data into meaningful analytics, and often this processing involves data science techniques such as machine learning and artificial intelligence, which are unfamiliar to a lot of planners.

Questions 4 above is applicable here too, but since these data or metrics are derived, planners should also actively seek information on how well they align with other data sources.

Ask data providers to share validation studies or white papers. If they don’t exist, ask if they’d be interested in collaborating with you to conduct one (assuming you have the data and resources available). Something to bear in mind, however, is that we planners often assume data sources we typically work with (e.g., traffic counts or Census data) to be “ground truth” and free from error. This is not always the case!

Make sure you understand confidence intervals and / or measures of error for the data you’re validating against.

Key Takeaways

Next time you are in the market for data to use at your MPO, make sure you consider all of the important factors regarding the purpose, ease of communication, timeliness, longevity, metadata, and accuracy of the candidate data!

With these in mind, Goldilocks and “just right” may be just around the corner 🙂

Loved this post and want to learn more? Check out our cloud-based transportation planning software solution and see how transformative a modern database can be when it comes to managing transportation data!

Transportation Planning: Tips for Putting Out Fires

Kristen Z, Transportation Planner

[<5 Minute Read]

Every state and local transportation improvement program must balance tackling new priorities while maintaining routine work on schedule and on budget, all while effectively responding to daily “fires” to be successful.

Does the task-list below sound familiar?

  1. The latest TIP amendment needs to be posted for public comment
  2. A DOT regulator sent you an email that needs attention ASAP
  3. You want to checkout the new transportation infrastructure project in person
  4. Your team just hired a new employee and you are the trainer
  5. There is a proposal to evaluate a new TIP software package 🙂

And just as you’re in the middle of starting your task sequence, you see the Technical Committee Chairperson’s number flash across your Caller ID. It’s going to be a crazy day – some days are just like that.

In the above scenario, what do you cut? If you’re like me, it’s probably evaluating an TIP software package because it doesn’t “have to” be done like the other tasks 🙁

However, if that same decision is made day-after-day, week-after-week, year-after-year, it comes at a cost. A big one. In the moment it feels like the right thing to do, because these other tasks are more urgent. And it may be the right decision that day, but it won’t be if it happens every day.

It’s crucial to set aside time to evaluate new technologies, skill-sets, and research. The transportation projects we plan everyday continue to evolve and change to meet new demands, so why wouldn’t the key planning processes that support them do the same?

If you find yourself spending every day like the one described above, here are a few tips that might just help you and your transportation planning organization while figuratively “change tires while driving 80 MPH”!

1. Communicate Priorities

When choices have to be made, choose to spend time on tasks consistent with the priorities of the organization.

2. Strive for Efficiency

Find efficiencies in routine tasks and reward employees that design or promote more efficient processes (e.g., Eco’s eTIP / STIP tool).

3. Invest in Innovation

Investing in intuitive software that virtually any professional can pick-up not only reduces staff training and onboarding time but is a force-multiplier for team output.

4. Manage the Calendar

Follow tried-and-true time management strategies like prioritizing your daily to-do list and block out “Focus Time” on your calendar at least once a week.

5. Ask for Help

Ask for help, it always feels less overwhelming knowing you are part of a team.

6. Evaluate New Options

Ensure the annual work program has an activity to evaluate new software options.

7. Do the Research

When kicking off a new project, budget time to research best practices and read case studies, it could save time and minimize mistakes in the long-run.

We asked AMPO Technical Programs Director, Caitlin Cook, to help us weigh-in!

Q: What are your “go-to” strategies to handle daily fires, routine work, and time to look at new priorities?

Caitlin Cook, Technical Programs Director – Association of Metropolitan Planning Organizations (AMPO)

Simple project management techniques like Gantt charts, weekly stand-ups, and Kanban boards have been my go-to strategies for keeping all of my daily and long-term tasks organized.

For several years I’ve been using a web-based product called Trello, which is a Kanban board that looks like post-it notes organized into lists. I have the post-its (called cards), organized by tasks that are:

  • On Deck
  • In Progress
  • Under Review
  • Done

This is where 99% of my daily and routine tasks are organized as their own cards with their respective due dates, notes, priorities, checklists, and any necessary attachments. I leave the board open in a browser all day, regularly checking back to mark progress on items or add new cards. I couple this with weekly stand-ups with my supervisor to confirm priorities for the week.

My coworkers are also working within Trello and have their own boards for daily and routine tasks. Because we are on the same Trello team we can easily leave each other comments, questions, and updates on shared tasks – I do this frequently when I have questions or need direction from my supervisor. By doing this on the task card, we cut down on emails while staying up-to-date on work.

For larger projects like organizing an annual conference or putting together a strategic plan, we create a project-specific board to organize tasks and divvy up responsibilities amongst the team.

When fires pop up, I’m able to more effectively address them because my daily work is already scheduled out. I can quickly make a judgement call on lower priority items that can be moved to another day, giving me time to focus on putting out the fire. I can also easily hand-off tasks to other staff that might have capacity that day so I can focus on the fire instead.

While Trello is my personal choice of tool, there are a myriad of project management tools on the market. At the end of the day, it’s important to remember project management is a mindset, not a tool. You can easily Word or Excel to organize your thoughts, create due dates / checklists, and communicate with your team. Regardless of the tool you choose, if you can plan out the daily and routine items, you’ll have a better chance of handling the small fires that pop up through the week.

As professional transportation planners, we evaluate transportation improvements and transportation projects, we interact with transportation engineers, local governments, State Departments of Transportation, and federal agencies. We plan highway projects, safety initiatives, and upgrades to the local street network. We write emails, take phone calls, and focus our attention on several different initiatives. It’s important in our day-to-day activities that we set aside time to assess new priorities and potential process improvers. In other words, we must change the tires while driving at 80 MPH. If we don’t, we’ll be left in the dust.

Loved this post and want to learn more? Check out our cloud-based transportation planning software solution.

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